Politics & Government

California lawmakers seek to expand child care, unionize workers

Amber MacDonald plays with her daughter Halo after dropping her off at Tisa Kelley’s child care service in the La Riviera area of Sacramento on Thursday. “She’s open 24-7 for me,” MacDonald said. “She’s able to care for my kids so that I can provide for them.”
Amber MacDonald plays with her daughter Halo after dropping her off at Tisa Kelley’s child care service in the La Riviera area of Sacramento on Thursday. “She’s open 24-7 for me,” MacDonald said. “She’s able to care for my kids so that I can provide for them.” hamezcua@sacbee.com

Last year, it was preschool and transitional kindergarten. This spring, majority Democrats in the California Legislature have made a priority of another program for young people: state-subsidized child care.

Thousands of child care slots would be added and reimbursement rates would increase under legislative proposals headed to a joint budget-writing committee expected to start work today, as negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown begin in earnest.

Both also would allow tens of thousands of home-based child care providers to unionize. The proposal could mark the largest collective bargaining expansion for a service with state funding since 1999 legislation made it easier for in-home care workers to organize.

Democratic lawmakers and advocates for the poor say the Assembly and Senate proposals would begin to restore a system that receives almost $1 billion less than it did before cuts during the recession, after adjusting for inflation. Low-income workers struggling to escape poverty cannot find affordable child care, supporters say, while many child care workers earn well below minimum wage.

Some children go to providers with an educational curriculum, but thousands go to providers that meet only the minimum health and safety standards. The value of early childhood education has been highlighted by academics as well as President Barack Obama and some of the 2016 presidential candidates.

“When our children enter kindergarten, some of them are very well prepared and some of them are not. They’re playing catch-up all their lives,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who leads the Legislative Women’s Caucus, which has championed the effort. “If we invest on the front end, we’ll save money on the back end.”

Tisa Kelley, a Sacramento child-care provider, said that a legislative proposal by Democrats to increase child-care funding will help her increase her rates, which have been the same for nine years. Video by Hector Amezcua, The Sacramento Bee.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who helped lead last year’s push to expand preschool and transitional kindergarten, said this year’s budget proposal would change the lives of many more people. “That was great for 4-year-olds. But children aren’t born (pre-kindergarten) or school age,” she said.

The proposals and others face a Brown administration intent on holding down spending on new health and welfare programs. Like his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brown has vetoed a bill to expand collective bargaining to child care providers, warning of higher costs.

California’s state-subsidized child care system dates from the eve of World War II, when the government looked for ways to encourage more women to get into the workforce manufacturing aircraft, tanks and other goods.

In this budget year, California is spending $2.4 billion on state-subsidized child care for more than 300,000 children, with about $840 million of that coming from the federal government.

The system has two broad categories. Some slots go to the children of participants in the state’s welfare-to-work program known as CalWorks. Other subsidized child care slots are available to non-CalWorks families who earn 70 percent or less of the state median income as of 2007-08. For a family of three, the current state cap is $42,216.

During the recession, the state reduced child care and early education funding for about 110,000 slots, roughly one-quarter of the total then available.

Yesenia Lombera said she had a hard time finding affordable child care near her Redwood City home. So she and her daughter, Neveya, rode the train each day to San Jose, 24 miles away, to attend a Kidango center that had a state-subsidized space.

“There were not enough slots available. Or if there was one available, it wasn’t within my budget,” Lombera said. Her daughter is now in kindergarten.

Many parents’ work schedules include night and weekend shifts, posing an additional challenge. “She’s open 24-7 for me,” Amber MacDonald of Sacramento said of family care provider Tisa Kelley, who offers child care at her La Riviera home. “She’s able to care for my kids so that I can provide for them.”

Reimbursement rates for early education and child development have been mostly stagnant since before the recession. Providers’ current rate of $36.10 per child per day is less in real dollars than the $34.38 rate during the 2007-08 budget year.

The result, advocates say, is that many providers face the same economic challenges as the families who come to them.

“I am the person who is actually doing this work and have been doing this work for 21 years,” said Tonia McMillan, a family provider in Bellflower who cares for 11 children, ages 10 months to 9 years old. “It has been a struggle from Year One.”

Having a union, McMillan and others say, would be an improvement.

Last month, McMillan testified in favor of legislation by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins that would add California to the 11 states that have collective bargaining for licensed and license-exempt child care providers. The idea this month was also folded into budget proposals by both houses.

It’s unknown how many providers would be covered. The Service Employees International Union, which is pushing the proposal, estimates there are about 70,000. Once established, a union would negotiate rates, payment terms and other conditions with the nonprofit agencies and other entities that contract with the providers.

“Here we have a sector of workers that serves as a backbone for the working poor to help lift themselves out of poverty but … can’t provide for their own families,” said Mary Gutierrez Khopkar, SEIU’s child care campaign director.

Governors and lawmakers have resisted the idea of allowing child care providers to collectively bargain, with several bills to do so stalling in the Legislature or vetoed in recent years. In 2011, Brown wrote in a veto message, “I am reluctant to embark on a program of this magnitude and potential cost.”

Republicans question the child care expansion plans, saying the state needs to hold the line on spending. Of the proposal to allow child care workers to unionize, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff suggested that Democrats want to help a key political ally.

“I believe it would just drive costs higher,” Huff said. “So the question is, is this about labor or is this about providing services?”

Jackson, though, said collective bargaining would improve child care and is only the start of a years-long effort. Little in this year’s proposals, for example, reflect the recommendations of a 2014 report by the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst that identified “serious design flaws” with the current system. In particular, the report noted that the same types of low-income families have different levels of access to state-subsidized child care.

“The first issue is to get these children back into a learning situation,” Jackson said. “The thinking is, we renew these slots and positions and as we go forward ... the system really needs to be reformed.”

Bee photographer Hector Amezcua contributed to this report.

California’s subsidized child care system

Current year: More than 300,000 children served; $2.4 billion in state and federal dollars

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal: Adds $101 million, creates 4,000 slots

Assembly Democrats’ proposal: Adds $605 million to create 20,500 slots, raises standard reimbursement rate by 20 percent

Senate Democrats’ proposal: Adds $330 million to create 17,500 slots, raises standard reimbursement rate by 4.4 percent